WALLED LAKE — While stories of fortitude and struggle are often lauded when it comes to pro athletes, 12-year-old Kevin Lee has known the meaning of struggle since he was just three hours old.
The Geisler Middle School seventh-grader, who was born without a left ventricle, has endured four open-heart surgeries, countless hospitalizations and very close calls ever since.
But with struggle comes reward; and in June, Kevin was able to live every boy’s dream — the chance to play football with an NFL team, meet his favorite players and be treated like a superstar, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Seattle Seahawks.
Kevin’s mother, Dawn Lee, said doctors realized something was wrong several hours after his birth.
“They discovered he had a heart murmur and started running tests. Six hours later, they informed us he needed to be taken to Children’s Hospital,” she said.
Kevin underwent his first surgery to insert a stent into his heart when he was three days old. He underwent another at 10 days old to repair a problem with the stent.
His third surgery took place at five months, and his fourth at 18 months. It was at this time that Kevin, already suffering from asthma, went into a deadly form of heart rhythm known as ventricular tachycardia. He was defibrillated and placed in the ICU, where he later went into cardiac arrest several times.
“We didn’t think he was going to make it,” she said.
Kevin did make it, but spent much of the first three years of his life battling illnesses that would have been minor for other children his age but, due to his condition, almost always required hospitalization.
Once in kindergarten, Kevin also required eye surgeries to correct his vision problems, as well as occupational therapy, physical therapy and even a feeding tube to assist his growth and development.
By first grade, Kevin was ready to be mainstreamed, and has done well in school ever since.
“In the lower grades, he missed a lot of school because he had a very weak immune system, and his asthma can’t be controlled with regular medication; he always had to be hospitalized,” she said.
“He’s smaller than other kids his age, and he can’t do some of the same things his friends do, such as play contact sports. Football is his favorite — he absolutely adores it.”
When Kevin first took a shine to the Seattle Seahawks, he told his mother it was because he liked the team’s colors. Later, he admitted that he admired quarterback Russell Wilson and wide receiver Golden Tate, in particular, because both men are smaller than the average NFL player and became successful despite others telling them that they wouldn’t measure up.
“I think Kevin really relates to that and respects them because he used to get picked on for being small when he was younger,” she said.
“He doesn’t allow himself to be bullied anymore. He takes those kind of comments in stride.”
When Dawn learned that Kevin’s terminal condition made him eligible to submit his wish to the Make-A-Wish, she wrote that his wish was to play football alongside Wilson.
Make-A-Wish has made wishes come true for children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions since 1981.
In June, Kevin’s wish came true. Along with his parents and his sister, Kevin was flown to Seattle to spend a day with the Seahawks at the team’s training facility. His story and his visit with the team will air at 11 p.m. Aug. 17 on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” and again throughout the day Aug. 18.
Although the Lees were asked to keep the details of the visit a secret until the program airs, Lee described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the entire family, and more than Kevin ever bargained for.
“Make-A-Wish, the Seattle Seahawks and even the hotel personnel far exceeded any expectations we may have had. They gave Kevin what he asked for and more than he could have ever conceived,” Dawn said.
“Everyone from the flight attendants onward treated him like a superstar. We had a ball.”
Geisler Middle School Principal Sheryl Kennedy described Kevin as “funny, smart, determined, resourceful and a ray of sunshine in the hallway.”
“(The Seahawks) made him feel like a rock star, from the corporate office on down,” said Kennedy, who was in on the surprise.
“The other really important part of the wish was that his dad has been working in Qatar for the past 18 months, and Kevin really wanted him here to see him play with the team.”
In early August, Kevin endured further hospitalization because his heart medication had begun to cause problems with his lungs — and any change in medication requires medical supervision. His mother said he will most likely need surgery to replace a leaking heart valve in the coming years.
“(Make-A-Wish) told Kevin, when he was thinking of his wish, to really reach for the stars, and he did,” she said.
“We are truly grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Kevin Lee’s Make-A-Wish minicamp experience with the Seattle Seahawks will air on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” at 11 p.m. Aug. 17 and throughout the day Aug. 18. Photos are posted under the Photo Gallery Archive for June 2013 at www.seahawks.com.
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